Question: Should race-based Affirmative Action continue into the 21st Century?

Answer: There has been a dramatic decline in the gap in educational attainment between Blacks and Whites since the middle of the twentieth century, from 2.9 years in the 1920s birth cohort to 0.9 years for the 1970s birth cohort, due in part to Affirmative Action.

At the same time there has been a persistent and increasing ability of white families to transfer advantage to their children at a greater rate than African American and Latino families. These racial/ethnic differences in the effects of family could be due to difference in school funding, racial biases in educational expectations, residential segregation, and the return of school segregation. All of these factors provide a greater advantage to wealthy white families than minority families.

If an individual’s level of education was only influenced by family background and not based on individual effort, ability, or educational policy, the Black/White gap over the twentieth century would have gone from zero for the 1920s birth cohort to 2.4 years for the 1970s birth cohort.

The remarkable achievement of the last half of the twentieth century is that in the face of this persistent inter-generational white advantage, the Black/White gap in educational attainment has largely disappeared due to the greater efforts of individual African American students and the implementation of policies such as Affirmative Action, Head Start and Upward Bound.

If policies such as Affirmative Action are ended it is quite possible that the gains of the last 50 years could be eroded. We can see the risks from ending Affirmative Action in the dramatic drop in enrollment of African-Americans and Latinos at UC Berkeley after the passage of Proposition 209 (which eliminated Affirmative Action) in California in 1996.

Many have argued against Affirmative Action because of concerns about reverse racism, the undervaluing of minority achievements, and due to a belief that class inequalities are more important than racial inequalities.

First, admissions officers have historically valued the non-academic factors of legacies and ability at sports much more highly than their desire to create a racial/ethnic balance. If we are concerned about non-academic preferences, we should first address the issue of legacy admissions, such as George W. Bush’s admission into Yale, before critiquing slight racial/ethnic preferences among equally qualified students.

Second, Whites often devalue the individual effort and achievements of African Americans because they attribute all of their success to Affirmative Action. However, it is problematic to punish African American students because many Whites fail to value their efforts.

Third, some argue that race-based Affirmative Action should be replaced with class-based Affirmative Action. These critics note that the number of individuals from poor and working-class backgrounds in the most selective colleges and universities has declined. This decline is due to both rising costs and to differences in class cultures.

However, it is a false choice to ignore current racial/ethnic biases in education in order to address class biases in educational access. Ideally, admissions officers should adopt both class-based and race-based Affirmative Action policies.

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